UK Lawmakers Launch Inquiry Into Sexual Harassment at Work

UK Lawmakers Launch Inquiry Into Sexual Harassment at Work

The Women and Equalities Committee of the UK Parliament has initiated an inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace and what employers and the government can do to better prevent and address it. The inquiry will look at:

  • action that the Government and employers can take to change workplace culture, increase confidence to report problems, and make tackling harassment a higher priority
  • how staff can be better protected from sexual harassment by clients, customers and others
  • how effective – and accessible – tribunals and other legal means of redress are, and what improvements could be made to those systems
  • the pros and cons of using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in sexual harassment cases, and what can be done to prevent inappropriate use of NDAs.

In its announcement of the inquiry, the committee points to a recent survey conducted by ComRes on behalf of the BBC, which found that 40 percent of women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, with women in the 18-34 age demographic reporting slightly a higher rate of prevalence. Another study in 2016 came up with even higher numbers, finding that 52 percent of women (and 63 percent of those aged 16-24) had experienced unwanted behavior including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes in the workplace.

The committee gathered oral evidence on the subject at a hearing in January, from a group of employment experts including the Confederation of British Industry’s Managing Director Neil Carberry and Ksenia Zheltoukhova, Head of Research at the CIPD. At that session, these experts stressed the importance of enabling victims of harassment to feel safe in reporting it, which means changing not only policy but also culture, as Carberry put it:

To our mind, we have moved from a world where employers struggle to understand how they could impact this to everyone having a policy. Most businesses of any size have a policy. The critical thing is how that policy is applied, particularly when something happens. It is pretty clear from the data on underreporting that many people have seen things that constitute sexual harassment in their working lives. When someone observes that and it is not dealt with well by an employer, that is dissuasive to reporting any future cases.

That comes back to this need for a change of culture, particularly around encouraging anyone who observes harassment to feel able to report it, and around giving people who have been harassed ways to report it that they trust.

The abuse of NDAs in sexual harassment cases is also an important focal point of the inquiry, Ashleigh Wight reports at Personnel Today, and one likely to lead to legislative or regulatory measures to guard against it:

Nick Evans, employment lawyer at law firm Fletcher Day, said: “The courts already take a dim view of employers trying to use non-disclosure agreements, or gagging clauses as they are commonly known, to cover up sexual harassment allegations.”

He continued: “Responsible employers will continue to do their utmost to protect their staff. There are legitimate reasons why a business may use a NDA but we expect to see a full-scale review of their use as a result of this inquiry. Further, in terms of widespread or systematic wrongdoing where disclosure is in the public interest, ‘whistleblower’ protection will override any NDA.”